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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Brees

A no-guns registry for someone who is suicidal 'could save our lives'

Donna Nathan, who had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals three times this year, drove to Gretna June 26 and bought a .38-caliber revolver. Eight hours later, she was found dead from a gunshot wound in Audubon Park.

She left a handwritten note to her boyfriend that said, "I'm sorry. I love you."

Two days later, Katrina Brees offered an idea in a Facebook post about how to save others who might think about doing what her mother had done:

"My mom bought a gun in New Orleans on Tuesday and drove to (Audubon Park) and opened the box and shot herself.

"I'm telling you all because gun control is not only about homicide, it is twice as likely to be a suicide. People suffering from bipolar and depression have no way to protect themselves from a suicidal gun purchase in Louisiana.

"I wish my mom could have registered herself as being unfit to buy a gun. She would have signed it years ago to protect herself and our family. I'm sorry to be so raw, I feel raw. I can't believe how impossible it was to get my mom help and how easy it was for her to buy a gun."

The same idea had occurred to Fredrick Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has had suicidal thoughts. That was four years ago, and the no-guns self-registry has become law in Washington. There are proposals in Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Wisconsin to do the same.

Katrina Brees wants Louisiana to be the next state to establish the registry. That ought to be an easy policy for Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature to champion.

This isn't an erosion of the Second Amendment, it is a lifeline for people who are desperately ill. There were 677 suicides in 2016 in Louisiana -- 440 of them were by firearms.

How many of those people might have been saved by a registry like the one Ms. Brees is advocating?

Alabama Sen. Trip Pittman sponsored a self-registry bill in the spring legislative session but ran out of time to get it passed. Sen. Pittman, a member of the NRA, said the gun rights lobby told him it wouldn't oppose his legislation. That is telling.

A legislator with a similar background to Sen. Pittman's ought to sponsor the registry legislation in Louisiana.

The registry generally works like this: People put their names on a do-not-sell list and that information is entered into the National Instant Criminal Background System. You can remove your name, but there is a waiting period of one to three weeks before a gun purchase is allowed. That is a safety measure to keep people from removing their names on impulse to commit suicide.

People on the no-sell list also can provide contact information for family or friends they want notified if they ask to be removed from the registry.

Mr. Vars, the UA professor, calls the registry a "powerful expression of (people's) autonomy and will to live."

Katrina Brees told her story to | Times-Picayune reporter Richard Webster as part of our "Fragile State" project examining the failings of Louisiana's mental health system. She believes her mother, who was opposed to owning a gun, might have changed her mind if she hadn't had such easy access to a weapon on June 26.

There is no waiting period to buy a gun in Louisiana. You only need an ID to prove you are 21 and be able to pass a criminal background check.

People with a mental illness can be denied the right to buy a gun in Louisiana, but only if a judge has ordered them to be involuntarily committed for treatment. Ms. Nathan had always voluntarily committed herself, so there was nothing to stop her from buying a gun.

Tragically, she was the sixth person in her family to commit suicide.

"It's pretty obvious suicide is how people in my family die. And it's obvious that access to firearms increases your chances of dying," Katrina Brees said. "For people like me and my mom, having the option to opt out of being able to purchase a firearm could save our lives. It could have saved her life and the grief of our family."

The state of Louisiana ought to give her and others that hope.

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